iBasso DX100 Reference DAP in Review – Android to the rescue!

Truly audiophiling an iPod touch is no mean feat. It takes no less than a Cypher Labs AlgoRhthym Solo DAC, and a Vorzüge or ALO Rx class headphone amp. Throw in some shielded interconnects and your’re done. But at what cost? The once slim touch is now a knobby and unholy hamburger of aluminium and winking LEDs. Personally, I’m tired of ordering sides with the main meal. The iBasso DX100 is a single-box solution that will outperform most if not all audio stacks without sacrificing much of what makes the iPod touch worthwhile.

And how pray tell were iBasso, an amplifier maker, able to retain most of what makes the iPod touch worthwhile? Android.

Power Source:Built-in 2000mAh 8.4V Li-polymer Battery pack or external power
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20KHz +0.1/-0.25dB
Signal to Noise Ratio:-116dB
Crosstalk: 1KHz0dB > -100dB, 20KHz odB = -82dB
THD+N: 0.002%
IMD: 0.0034%
Gain and Output Power: 0dB=2V rms (125mW/32ohm)
+3dB = 2.8V rms (245mW/32ohm)
+8.5dB = 5.0V rms (83mW/300ohm)
Battery Life: 72Hours (stand-by) or 7Hours (play music)
Battery Charge Time: 4Hours
External Power supply: 12V DC
Recommended Headphone Impedance: 8~600Ω
Dimension: 2.83W x 4.65L x 0.93H (inch)
71.8W x 118L x 27.5H (mm)
Weight: 265g or 9.3oz

Main Features
– Android2.3 OS With Custom Audio Player Software
– Support up to 24Bit/192kHz Bit for Bit Decoding
ES9018 32Bit DAC Chip
– Built-in +/-8.5V Headphone AMP
– 3.75″ Capacitive Touch Screen
– Up to 24Bit/192 Optical/Mini Coaxial Output
– 3.5mm Headphone Output, 6.3mm Headphone Output, and Line Out
– 256-Steps Digital Volume Control
– 64G Onboard Flash
– Support up to 32G External MicroSD
– 3-Setting Gain Switch
– SRC Function
– Slow Roll-off/ Sharp Roll-off Digital Filter
– Support Wifi, Bluetooth
– Solid Case Made of Magnesium Alloy and Aluminum Alloy
– Audio Formats Supported: APE, FLAC, WAV, WMA, AAC, ALAC, OGG, MP3
– Come With Micro USB Cable, Coaxial Cable, and AC Adapter
– One Year Warranty and Ten Years Free Labour

Manufacturer: iBasso
Product: iBasso DX100 Reference DAP
Price: 829$ USD

All about the DX100 at Headfi
Headfi hosts a wonderful FAQ for all potential and current DX100 owners. I recommend perusing it in order to enjoy your purchase to the utmost. 

What’s in a DAC?
The DX100 sports what is the most hi-tech portable DAC. The ES9018 32bit DAC is a home-grade DAC. It’s mated to iBasso’s logic board and fed enough current to remain stable no matter the output load. Some pundits believe iBasso could have dealt with power fluctuations a bit better, but in the grand scheme of things, there isn’t a better DAC implementation among mass produced portable audio players.

Whether or not you think the ES9018 is overkill is up to you. iBasso’s inclusion of it – in a portable machine – is laudable. For 16 bit audio, its performance is topped by Cypher Labs’ CLAS. However, so few portable amplifiers even come close to the DX100’s output performance that the gains made by connecting your iDevice to an outboard DAC are moot.

UPDATE: I’ve been reminded that in order to get bit-for-bit output from the ES9018, you must use iBasso’s Music app, which as you will see, is sort of a shame.

Android 2,3
Considering that until very recently, Android 2,3 was on the majority of new Android devices, the DX100’s operating system isn’t exactly mouldy. Most apps run on 2,3 without hitch, though there are restrictions here and there – at least regarding the DX100.

First up is music apps. Several goodies including Songbird and Poweramp run, but with some issues. Both are leagues better than the stock Music app. The stock app is slow, lacks browse options and has only rudimentary playlist support. Gapless files have gaps, and the DX100‘s screen pops on and off at will, rendering every accidental nudge an input of some sort – often changing tracks, volume, or playlists.

But, what the DX100’s Music app lacks in polish, it makes up for in format support. Music app should have no problem with your library. In fact, out-of-box, the DX100 supports Apple’s proprietary lossless AAC encoder, ALAC, as well as the modern industry standard, AAC. in addition to the regulars. Naturally, it plays FLAC, OGG Vorbis, APE, MP3 and WAV. Next to the Colorfly C4‘s dictatorial list of supported files, format support offered by the DX100 is refreshingly progressive.

Music’s interface is pretty stark: play/pause, forward and reverse keys fall in below album previews and playlist controls. Scrobbling requires you to drag your finger over the playback indicator. Nothing indicates it is possible; I can picture some owners never dragging along the playback timeline, rather scrobbling by holding down the forward/reverse buttons. Labelling isn’t obviously a strong point for the DX100. But then again, the obviousness with which the iPod/Music app runs is hardly standard among audio players – even players designed for audiophiles.

UPDATED: My first recommendation is to download Songbird or Poweramp and forget the stock Music app – at least for overall utility. As stated above, bit perfect decoding is only possible via iBasso’s Musica app.

You can game on the DX100. Its internals aren’t the stuff of 3D dreams, but simple apps work. The mother of them all, Exult, the Ultima 7 reverse engine, eludes me. If I could get that to play, damn. Damn that would be good.

I’d expect it to drain the battery in no time flat, though.

Touch Screen
Like the iPod touch, it is capacitive, and generally, responsive. iBasso ship it with a thin screen protector that should keep most minor scratches away, but both it, and the screen, are made of softer, mark-friendly materials. The screen itself scratches easily and being thin, the protector isn’t completely up to the task of protecting the screen.

Unlike the iPod touch screen, the pixel layer sits way below the touch panel. Distance obfuscates the immediacy of interaction between finger and pixel. It’s understandable, however: the iPod touch has been around since 2007 and gone through five iterations, each better than the last. The DX100 is a first-generation device made with the precise goal of sounding as good as possible. Ostensibly, the customer for the DX100 is quite different to the iPod touch customer. The DX100 customer is after power, not polish. She wants the best sound, top quality outputs, and even better codec support. She is first an audiophile, a consumer second.

In that light, the DX100 screen is forgivable. But, in direct comparisons, it does no service to itself. In particular, its low resolution is heady with memories of 2008. Viewing angles, colour quality, and contrast, are much lower than the iPod touch. The average iPod touch customer would take one look at the DX100 price tag and pish paw the screen and size.

At first blush, iBasso’s player is massive. But, when juxtaposed with iPod audio rigs, it is much more wieldy. Remember, no cables are necessary. The only other audio equipment I’ve come across that does that trick is the MyST 1866, a well-meaning amp that has its own host of issues.

If you’re a hot-rodding audiophile who wants the absolute best, you will forgo the iPod’s internal DAC and add a CLAS. Plus an amp. Compared such a rig, the DX100 is tiny and elegant. Battery life between the two options isn’t too different. When it comes time to charge, you need only charge one device, not three.

When viewed in its proper context as an audio stack replacement, the DX100 has many size advantages.

Ease of use
For the most part, the DX100 is self-explanatory. Power goes on with a push of the power button. Hold it down for a few seconds to bring up the power off dialogue. Volume goes up and down via the rocker, and headphones are plugged into the corresponding 3,5mm or 6,3mm ports. Charging requires the use of the external power brick. The transfer of files requires a micro USB cable, or a micro SD card.

I’m not electrical engineer, so take this criticism with a grain of salt, but I wish the micro USB port could be replaced with the more common mini USB variant. In my house, there is only one micro USB cable, while I’ve got about six mini USB cables wriggling here and there. It’s scary. Lose that sucker and well, I’d have to go out and buy a new one. There’s enough room, so why didn’t iBasso utilise the more common connection?

Apart from that minor concern, the DX100 well designed. Firstly, it’s got Android under the bonnet. That means apps. It means books. It means movies. It means that truly, the DX100 is an iPod touch replacement. Competitors from Colorfly and Hifiman don’t offer such accoutrements.

Now, Android 2,3 isn’t exactly a new school release, and it isn’t as polished as the likes of jelly bean. But it gets the job done – certainly the job an audiophile wants. It plays music wonderfully. The major difficulty is that the processor isn’t being used brilliantly; that, or it isn’t powerful enough for Android 2,3. Things are slow. Booting up takes minutes, not seconds. Changing from playback to home and back again lags. Scrolling through albums, songs, playlists, etc., is laborious. Even with Go Launcher EX installed, it’s a dog.

There’s no cushy way to say it: the iBasso DX100 is infuriatingly slow.

Having played with many an iPod/amp combo in my tenure among the internet’s audiofoolery, I can say unequivocally: the DX100 trumps all iPod (or other player) and amp combinations. That is, full-size portable headphone amps like the above-mentioned Vorzüge and ALO Rx. The DX100’s biggest trump card is that its built-in amp and DAC are good enough not to necessitate external components.

Thus, no cables. It’s your headphones and the DX100. Plug and play. And Go. Single box solutions such as this mean one-handed operation. There’s no fiddling with volume pots and different output ports. iBasso didn’t pull any stupid tricks. There’s a volume rocker on the right hand side. It’s digital, so volume is balanced down to he zero setting. Digital connections and the charging port are cleanly arrayed on the top edge of the device, headphone and line outputs along the bottom.

The gain switch, which features three selectable positions, is on the bottom right edge. It stays out of the way and isn’t easily bumped. As large as it is and considering that it wasn’t made by Apple, it is a study in careful design.

In/Out Ports
As far as I’m concerned iBasso threw in the kitchen sink. The DX100 sports three quality 3,5mm outputs: coaxial, optical, and line. Line is very close to true line-level. Strangely, its output levels are controlled via the volume rocker. The good news is that because true line-level outputs can overrun weak input circuits of some sources, the variable volume line output of the DX100 plays well with just about every external amplifier.

On the digital end, both coaxial and optical connections come in portable flavour. Optical mini to toslink cables will get you up and moving with the majority of optical-sporting home DACs, while a stereo or mono 3,5 to RCA coaxial cable will get you up and running with everything else. The great news about 3,5mm coaxial is that you can connect lowly analogue cables and still get a digital signal out. True, over distance, you may lose signal quality; and if your cable isn’t shielded, you may get noise. A well-grounded analogue cable of a couple centimetres in length is all you really need to play nice with external portable DACs.

Probably in the next few years, optical outputs will go the way of the dodo. Coax is so much more stable. It is freer of electronic noise, and its connectors are readily found and easy to build yourself.

Apart from the full-size 6,3mm phone port along the bottom left edge of the DX100, all other outputs are ringed in plastic. While that sounds ‘cheap’, the good news is that grounding issues should be nil. The 6,3 jack, too, is sleeved by a plastic ring. Insulation is important, especially in areas that don’t use grounded power supplies. The DX100’s excellent ports alone are not enough to obviate ground loop issues, but they go a long way in eliminating possible annoyances.

The only issue with plastic ports is that they are more susceptible to internal/external damage. Had iBasso dressed each port in an insulated metal ring, I’d feel better. They didn’t and the reasons are understandable.

Battery life and heat
No audiophile player on the planet boasts good battery life. No, HiSound players don’t count. Colorfly’s C4 gets up to 8 hours of life, Hifiman players get up to 9. The DX100 does about the same. Hook up the audiophile essentials to your iPod/iPhone and you’ll achieve no better battery life. Dosh isn’t the only thing you part with for a the pristine audio afforded by players such as the DX100. Battery life is simply something you give up.

With 7-8 hours of playback, the DX100 does well. This audiophile would gladly give up the clunky Android interface for a home-brew OS if it meant better battery life. I’d also be happy for the DX100 to be rid of its touch screen. The other currency you exchange for the DX100’s high performance and sound quality is heat dissipation.

Heat isn’t an issue per se, but when under stress, the DX100 radiates as much heat as a high end portable amplifier. Think ALO Continental. On a warm day, it’s a mini boiler in your pocket. On a cold day, it’s something you want to fit in your mitt – unfortunately, it’s too large to be squeezed into all but Goliath’s gloves.

Sound – The Excellent Volume Circuit
Hidden in the spec is something that should perk the ears of many earphone enthusiasts: a 256 step volume control. Volume increments exponentially. At a volume level of 1, the level of increase mostly undetectable until in the teens. This means that owners of notoriously sensitive earphones such as Shure’s SE530 will have no volume issues at any level. On the other side of the equation, the DX100 funnels immense power and control into the likes of the DT880 600Ω.

This is the most significant indication that iBasso meant the DX100 to be a ground-up full support device. It isn’t meant for headphones or for earphones. It isn’t meant to drive loads of 600Ω or 8Ω. It is meant to drive them all.

And drive it does. Fluently.

Its headphone amplifier handles extremely sensitive earphones with pencil-thin loads that floor many dedicated headphone amps. And it does it with extremely low noise floors and perfect left/right channel balance.

Moving up on the scale, portable headphones are handled perfectly, the DX100’s exquisite volume rocker controlling all balance artefacts. This goes all the way up to 600Ω headphones. Unlike some headphone amps that sport largely unnecessary gain settings, the DX100’s switchable gain is perfectly mated to the volume circuit.

In low gain mode at a volume of 228/256 is powerful; for modern recordings, it borders on loud. Switching to high gain and it becomes almost painful. That is when paired with the Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω. At 256/256 at high volume, the DT880 exhibits field irrelevant IMD distortion. Older recordings remain 100% distortion free at any volume level. With the FitEar ToGo! 334, I keep volume between 120 and 180 and low gain.

The amp is powerful. And thanks to its exponential volume scale, inadvertently nudging the volume button up results in minute volume increments, saving your ears. In contrast, the iPhone’s volume increases at a perceptible linear growth. With certain earphones, even a single nudge is deafening.

This is the best implementation of a volume circuit I’ve ever seen in a portable device. Its major issue, however, is speed. Sometimes, the volume rocker won’t react. I’ve waited up to 8 seconds between the press of the down button and the corresponding change in volume. If music is too loud, unplug your earphones then change the volume. Don’t wait for the DX100 to respond.

RMAA and Square Wave Test Disclaimer
Tests performed in this section reflect the DX100’s performance when connected to a specific set of output/input devices. They should not directly be compared to any other result. The input device is an Edirol FA-66. The output devices are: Earsonics SM2, Beyerdynamic DT880 600Ω, and Audio Technica ES10, which are connected parallel to the output signal. For the sake of comparison, ALO’s RX MKIII was connected to the DX100’s line output and tested with the same earphones.

Hardware tests were completed after three months of daily listening and firming up my opinions on the DX100’s sound. Hardware tests only reinforce my opinions.

RMAA and square wave results are hosted in the forums.

Sound – Square Waves and load
There is no stronger evidence that the DX100 stands on its own two feet than the flying colours it displays in all hardware tests. In all cases, it betters any Apple Device on the market. In fact, its headphone output betters most aftermarket portable amplifiers. Even ALO’s excellent RX3 isn’t able to keep up.

The sort of stereo image distortion evident in the playback of the Earsonics SM2 and the Audio Technica ES10 is extremely minimal. Most portable devices barely manage -50-65 dB of stereo separation via the SM2; the DX100 manages -83,6 dB. Typical readings for the ES10 tell a similar tale. As is common, the DT880 600Ω presents almost no load to the internal amplifier. The DX100 treats it as a straight wire. Even pushed to extreme volumes (where this test was performed), the internal amplifier pushes clean, distortion-free sound.

There is a slight amount of ringing in the range of 1kHz. For all real-use intents and purposes, it is inaudible.

Sound – Linearity
With the exception of stereo image, anomalies between loaded and unloaded signals are field irrelevant. No matter what you plug into the DX100, you will get the cleanest, most distortion-free sound possible in a portable source. The DX100 has no real competition in its price category. Loaded, it may have no competition at any price.

You may note the high frequency roll off of about 0,5dB. Unless you are a bat, it is inaudible.

Sound – Noise
There is next to zero noise in the signal. All electronics have output noise. Sensitive earphones will reveal more signal noise; insensitive earphones will reveal less. It’s as simple as that. There is a small amount of white noise audible when using earphones such as Shure’s SE530 and the FitEar ToGo! 334. Its level is similar to the noise of an iPhone 5 and therefore less than any current iPod nano or previous iPhones. At medium gain it is similar to an iPod nano. At high gain, it is still less than most Walkman models. Higher volume levels do not correspond to rising noise levels. Only when gain is raised does noise rise. Thanks to the logarithmic volume control, even the most sensitive earphones can be used at comfortable volumes.

Sound – Separation and Stereo Image
The DX100 particularly excels in casting an intense stereo image. It mostly struts its stuff with the likes of full-size headphones, but the precision and width of the stereo image it portrays even with sensitive earphones is phenomenal.

With full-size headphones, there are distinct channels into which instruments are funnelled. As is typical, percussion falls into the centre, its weight and texture hovering above the head, expanding beyond the ears. High hats and other high-frequency percussion fizzles and cracks at the edges of this channel. Each frequency is clearly delineated and unconfused. This image is mesmerisingly clear. I’m one of a die-hard breed that feels that for typical volumes and uses, you can’t really do better than the iPod touch; but here, the DX100 shoulders it out of the way.

Of particular note is the the definition of high and mid bass against the midrange, which are rendered clearer and in more detail than any competitor.

Sound – Digital? Analogue?
Gee whizz, Mickey, that question again? I’ll put it this way: the DX100 is by no means a soft, tubby sounding machine. It renders everything cleanly, in fine, exquisite detail. Noise never obscures the signal. Channel balance is perfect. Stereo image is so engulfing that at times, that I’ve sworn there were desktop speakers pointed at my head.

If cleanliness and quality are your primary concerns, the DX100 is your key. Grab it. Now. But if you tend to prefer mellifluousness to lucidity, pick something else. Or, add a portable amp. The DX100’s internal amp is better for most headphones than any portable amp. Compared back to back, it is clearer and more detailed. If you’re keen on audiophile style but don’t like absolute clarity and don’t want an amp, check out the competition from Colorfly or Hifiman.

The DX100 is decidedly digital sounding, but – and please mark my words – not in any negative connotation. It is extremely accurate, extremely detailed, suffering none of the stultifying effects typical to ‘digital sounding’ sources. Harshness, sibiliance, and superficiality simply to not apply to its excellent musical frame.

Sound – In a nutshell
Clarity, precision, width: three words that describe the DX100’s output infuse every song, every album, every listening moment. There is nothing that compares. iBasso’s output is linear and textured. It suffers no comparison, even against dedicated portable amplifiers. Volume balance between channels is perfect, and noise is minimal. This music lover recommends you to use the DX100 by itself. No amp required – that is, unless you are driving something like the K1000 or listen at deafening levels with the likes of the LCD-2.

Out and About
The DX100 is a large device. None of my jean pockets can fit both me and the DX100. It’s one or the other – and no matter how good the DX100 sounds, I prefer going out clothed from top to bottom. If your clothes are baggy, the DX100 will fit in. Alternatively, you can put it in a camera case, or one of those thief-friendly belt-wallets that Japanese geezers like to flop around Akihabara. Because it is large, the DX100 attracts attention, though not as much as a proper audio stack.

This is the best sound quality you can get for the money. No amp/DAC combo at any price will match it.

Issues – GUI Speed
Speed is certainly an issue for the DX100. Typical touch input instructions often take seconds to elicit visual or auditory responses. At times, even minute volume changes  If you are coming from an iPod touch, you will be amazed how long it takes to turn the DX100 on, how long it takes to load up a list of your favourite albums or songs. At times, you may wonder if it even caught your input. You will be frustrated.

Issues – ID3 Tags
My music is perfectly tagged and collated. Song order, album year, composer, artist – it’s all there. An iPhone or iPod never missteps. Players from Sony to Cowon to HiSound have myriad ID3 tag problems. Often, files play back in improper order. The DX100 has some issues with playback order no matter what I do with ID3 tags. The only foolproof method is to retitle every song with the corresponding track number preceding the song title.

Apps such as mp3 tag will help.

Issues – Build Quality
Despite sporting a largely metal exoskeleton and sky-high pricetag, the DX100 is completely outclassed by the iPod touch. Its screen scratches easily. The metal is thin and bends under slight pressure. One good drop and it will dent. If you are hard on devices, you might think about investing in a more modular system. You are bound to break the DX100.

Sadly, there are no competitors that come close to iPod touch levels of precision and build quality, at any price. The DX100 isn’t one. Neither is the Colorfly C4. Same with Hifiman models. Regarding audiophile players, precision build quality is inversely commensurate with every hundred dollars shelled out for an audio device.

Issues – micro-USB and power brick
A portable device should be able to charge via USB. Naturally, the DX100’s powerful guts suck a lot more electricity from the mains than an iPod touch does. But, so does the iPad, and it charges over USB. It takes time, yes, but nothing a few hours won’t fix. If you travel with the DX100, you have to take along the power brick. The battery cuts out after 8-10 hours of playback. You’ll never be far from an outlet.

The other half of this issue is the inclusion of a micro USB port rather than the more common mini USB port. All the cables from your cameras, mobile phones, iPod touch copies – not a one will work with the DX100. It’s not like the micro-USB port does anything special. It syncs at best; otherwise it merely transfers information. We’re not talking about a sophisticated Lightning or 30-pin port. Digital audio is pulled from the DX100 via dedicated SPDIF ports.

And of course, syncing the DX100 and copying music via the micro USB cable will NOT charge the battery.

Issues – headphone out ‘pop’
If you are a user of sensitive earphones, take note: the DX100 sometimes pops violently when its power button is nudged. This typically happens when the player is dozing between listening sessions. Since the DX100 responds slowly to any input, and takes minutes to boot up, turning it off isn’t an exciting option for the music lover whose work gets in the way of her favourite music. This wake up pop is violent and painful. It is also not good for your earphones. iBasso need to fix this.

Final thoughts
This review is too long, and too late. I’ve been working on it for three months. But, the more I get acquainted with the DX100, the more I feel there is to say. It’s a weakness on my part, not iBasso’s. Soundwise, it is a maven among girl scouts. One DX100 is all you need. It will feed your home system via its excellent DAC and industry standard output connections. And, when on the road, it will drive any sort of headphone/earphone you plug into it. Its performance is far and away above its competition. Its flaws: speed, imprecise build, the necessity of bringing a power brick with you all the time – are probably worth it for most audiophiles. After all, sound quality is king, isn’t it? And what a sound it is: extraordinarily detailed, wide, defined, and utterly addictive, there is nothing like it on the portable market. The DX100 obviates the necessity of an external DAC/amp combination. It is also cheaper and more ergonomic than strapping an iPod to a CLAS and external amp.

Cheaper, better sound, more ergonomic: if you can put up with its stutteringly slow interface, you are in for an undeniable treat.

Excellent sound
Perfect volume balance
Extremely low noise
High quality DAC
Unmatched output drive quality
Internal 64GB
One box solution
Good format support

Response time is awful
Build quality inferior to iPod touch
Inadvertent button presses
Micro USB and Power brick

Hot damn! Headphones really are a rockin’ way to enjoy music, right? Feel free to explore TMA’s headphone oubliette

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